Not-so-shocking newsflash: drinking soda isn’t very good for you. A viral infographic made its way onto the Internet last week, breaking down what happens to your body within an hour of drinking a can of Coke. While it makes some decent points about sugar and caffeine, its approach is very…dramatic. The infographic’s creator, The Renegade Pharmacist, used the information from an article originally published on Blisstree. It’s clear neither websites are fans of the fizzy beverage (full disclose: ours isn’t either), but the alarmist approach belies some interesting facts.
So I sat down with three of Beachbody’s nutrition experts to put it in perspective. Here’s the real science on “The Real Thing.”
What Really Happens When You Drink Soda?
In the first 10 minutes
Infographic claim: “10 teaspoons of sugar hit your system. (100% of your recommended daily intake.) You don’t immediately vomit from the overwhelming sweetness because phosphoric acid cuts the flavor, allowing you to keep it down.”
What actually happens: You ingest 10 teaspoons (39 grams) of sugar, which undoubtedly is a lot. In fact, this is more than American Heart Association’s recommended daily limit, which is no more than nine teaspoons for men and six teaspoons for women. But a 12 fl. oz. Starbucks Vanilla Frappuccino has 69 grams of sugar, the “light” version has 39 grams of sugar, and the drink doesn’t contain phosphoric acid. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t ever seen someone gag when drinking a Frappuccino.
Dr. Nima Alamdari, Beachbody Director of Scientific Affairs, says the infographic is mostly fluff. “The sugar level can be problematic, particularly in a sedentary lifestyle and when frequency of consumption is a factor, but the idea that this would typically induce a vomiting reflex is just fictional.”
“If your glycogen and blood glucose is depleted, sugar is actually good for you,” says Steve Edwards, VP of Fitness and Nutrition. “Coke works okay as a sports food. The problem is that most people use it far more for watching sports, not playing them, and then, that much sugar is definitely detrimental to you health.”
“When over-consumed, sugar can be pretty toxic, but claiming it will cause you to vomit is asinine,” states an irritated Denis Faye, Director of Nutrition. “There are plenty of ways to slam Coke without making things up!”
What about phosphoric acid? It cuts the sweetness in soda and provides colas their “tangy” flavor, but none of the three believe it has anything to do with keeping your from retching. “Think of all the sodas that don’t contain phosphoric acid,” adds Faye. “When’s the last time someone yakked after downing a can of Sprite? I mean, one not spiked with rum, of course.”
It does, however, have some other issues, which we’ll look at later.
Within 20 minutes
Infographic claim: “Your blood sugar spikes, causing an insulin burst. Your liver responds to this by turning any sugar it can get its hands on into fat. (And there’s plenty of that at this particular moment.)”
What actually happens: Your blood sugar does spike, causing a burst of insulin. That’s because insulin controls blood sugar levels, which is totally normal. When you bring sugar (or any food) into the body, you need insulin to regulate it.
What about the fat production? “It’s certainly not a blanket statement you can make,” says Edwards. “If your body is depleted, the sugar will go right to work helping your body recover. If you’re not, it can be stored in adipose (fat) tissue but it’s a stretch to say that will happen with the sugar in one Coke. Habitual drinking, yes, but that’s not what the infographic is claiming.”
This is why drinking 10 Cokes a day can quickly lead to weight gain. But is a single soda going to cause you to blow up like a balloon? No.
Within 40 minutes
Infographic claim: “Caffeine absorption is complete. Your pupils dilate; your blood pressure rises; as a response, your liver dumps more sugar into your bloodstream. The adenosine receptors in your brain are now blocked, preventing drowsiness.”
What actually happens: Your body absorbs the caffeine, which may dilate your pupils and raise your blood pressure, but 12 fl. oz. of Coke has only about 29 mg of caffeine. I say “only” because 8 oz. of green tea has between 24 and 45 mg of caffeine, and a cup of coffee can have 260 mg.
“To make this claim over 29 grams of caffeine is preposterous!” exclaims Faye. “Sure, people sometimes drink more than one can in a sitting, but you can drink an entire Big Gulp and still take in less caffeine than an 8-ounce cup of coffee.”
“The description for the metabolism of a very low dose of caffeine is dramatized,” adds Dr. Alamdari. “From a physiological and health perspective, the level of caffeine is not problematic.”
Now, let’s tackle the second part of the claim. Adenosine is a neuromodulator in your central nervous system that facilitates sleep. Caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors, which prevents you from becoming drowsy. Yes, this part of the infographic is technically correct, but an intake of low-dose caffeine isn’t some big scary monster and this makes it sound like a set up for the next big horror movie.
“In my experience, most people drinking Coke want this effect, so the point is moot,” says Edwards. “Yet, they still managed to exaggerate it.”
Within 45 minutes
Infographic claim: “Your body ups your dopamine production, stimulating the pleasure centers of your brain. This is physically the same way heroin works, by the way.”
What actually happens: Your body increases dopamine production because of both the sugar and caffeine in the soda. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that interacts in the pleasure centers of your brain. Yes, heroin increases dopamine levels. But so does eating bananas. And exercising. And watching the Three Stooges. It’s all a matter of perspective.
“I’m the first to admit Coke has an addictive quality, although I’d argue it’s more psychological, thanks to decades of marketing telling us how it’s the key to happiness and world peace,” says Faye. “But you have a Coke and a smile, not a Coke and a nod-off. Comparing it to heroin is every bit as propagandistic as those insipid Share-a-Coke ads.”
After 60 minutes (Part 1)
Infographic claim: “The phosphoric acid binds calcium, magnesium, and zinc in your lower intestine, providing a further boost in metabolism. This is compounded by high doses of sugar and artificial sweeteners also increasing the urinary excretion of calcium.”
What actually happens: “They had a chance to make a valid point here and they completely dropped the ball,” says Faye, referring to a 2006 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition linking lower bone density and kidney disease with women who consumed cola daily (as opposed to other sodas). The problem is, if you read the study, you’ll see that the researchers don’t pin the issue on phosphoric acid. They suggest that it could be the caffeine, phosphoric acid, cola extract, or the carbonation, but then go on to cite several studies discounting all those theories.
“Those four things individually are generally okay, so it’s probably the alchemy of them all mixed together,” hypothesizes Faye. “Or it could be that people who drink cola tend to drink less healthier caffeinated beverages, like coffee and tea—which have actually been shown to be good for your bones.”
So long story short, yes something about cola may mess with your bones, but they’re not sure what, which doesn’t make for a good infographic.
And by the way, cola isn’t the only place you find phosphoric acid. It’s also in meat and dairy products. And while this infographic might exaggerate its effects, it still probably isn’t great to consume in large quantities. It does make a fantastic rust remover, though.
After 60 minutes (Part 2)
Infographic claim: “The caffeine’s diuretic properties come into play. (It makes you have to pee.) It is now assured that you’ll evacuate the bonded calcium, magnesium, and zinc that was headed to your bones as well as sodium, electrolytes, and water.”
What actually happens: Caffeine is a diuretic, and that does give you the urge to run to the bathroom. Yes, you will release some nutrients. But the amount is so minimal that it’s hardly even worth mentioning. Coffee makes you pee more often because of the diuretic properties of caffeine, but it’s unlikely you’re suffering from weakness after your mid-morning bathroom break. Studies have shown that caffeine is actually extremely beneficial to athletic performance, and the amount study participants consumed was way more than the 29 mg found in Coke.
After 60 minutes (Part 3)
Infographic claim: “As the rave inside you dies down, you’ll start to have a sugar crash. You may become irritable and/or sluggish. You’ve also now, literally, pissed away all the water that was in the Coke. But not before infusing it with valuable nutrients your body could have used for things like hydrating your system, or building strong bones and teeth.”
What actually happens: First of all, if there’s a crazy dance party going on inside of you every time you drink a Coke, you might have some other issues that need to be looked into. In reality, it’s true that at this point you will start to feel the effects of your blood sugar levels crashing. This occurs because your body is adjusting from a high level of blood sugar to a lower level of blood sugar. You might start to feel irritable and/or sluggish. Just talk to any kid at the end of an ice cream-and-cake-filled birthday party.
“This statement is actually true for the most part,” says Edwards. “Unless you’re using it during and post activity, you will spike and fade to some degree. And this effect can be pronounced in some people.”
“I agree with Steve,” adds Faye. “Sugar crashes are a fact of life for junk food junkies.”
“I’m certainly not a soda fan,” says Edwards. “I don’t drink it and I wrote an article calling it the worst food on the planet, which I believe it is. But that piece cites logic, reason, and actual statics. It’s not just alarmist drivel.”
“I’m not a soda fan, full stop. Mainly because these high sugar drinks are a major contributor to the obesity epidemic we are experiencing” says Dr. Alamdari. “But, I’m also not a fan of hype articles with a clear lack of evidence-basis behind them. It feeds secondhand misinformation to readership that deserves better.”
“Soda has no redeeming qualities. Period,” states Faye. “But the same can be said for American Pie sequels and I like watching those every so often. It’s just a matter of knowing when to watch—or drink—something healthier.”
Drinking a can of cola every now and then might not wreak total havoc on your entire body like this infographic makes it seem, but if it helps you stop drinking soda, perhaps it’s a good thing, whether they’re making it up or not.